As the holidays roll around and the end of the year nears, outdoor construction work often slows, or even halts, in the colder areas of the United States.
But there are many companies who continue to work around the calendar year, often despite the plunging temperatures.
Working in cold weather presents its own unique set of construction safety challenges, and not all workers may be aware of how to protect themselves in the elements. OSHA provides some tips for construction worker safety in cold environments here.
Prolonged exposure to cold or freezing (below 32 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures may cause serious health problems, including trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia. In extreme cases, this can lead to death. Emergency help should be contacted immediately if you observe uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, clumsy movements, fatigue, or confused behavior from workers on a job site.
Hypothermia occurs when a person’s normal body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (average human temperature is 98.6 degrees). Shivering while alert can be a mile symptom, but serious problems occur when shivering stops, heart rate and/or breathing slows, consciousness is lost, or speech is slurred. Hypothermia, if left untreated, can lead to death.
Frostbite, which occurs when body tissue freezes, can also occur at above-freezing temperatures due to wind chill. Skin that becomes numb, becomes reddened and develops gray or white patches, feels firm or hard, and may blister should be treated immediately to avoid amputation.
Trench foot, also known as “immersion foot,” is a non-freezing injury caused by lengthy exposure to wet, cold environments. It can occur at temperatures as high as 60 degrees if feet are constantly wet, and shows symptoms of redness, swelling, numbness, and blisters.
In order to prevent these and other cold weather injuries, OSHA recommends that all workers be aware of current and forecasted weather conditions, especially potentially hazardous weather. Workers should dress appropriately, including layers of loose-fitting clothing, water resistant clothing, windproof outer layers, and proper ventilation. It’s always a good idea to keep a spare set of clothes on hand as well, and layers can be added or removed as the day progresses.
Workers should keep their heads covered whenever possible, ensuring that any required head protection has an insulated layer. Feet and hands should be protected with insulated socks and gloves. Supervisors should restrict time outdoors when temperatures reach 0 degrees Fahrenheit, or when wind chills reach -22 degrees.
Work should be scheduled for the warmest part of the day whenever possible, and workers should take frequent short breaks in warm, dry shelters to allow their bodies to warm up. Remember that exhaustion and fatigue are also more common when working in cold temperatures, as more energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
Anyone working in extremely cold temperatures should eat warm, high-calorie foods for added energy and should drink warm, sweet beverages such as sugar water, or sports drinks, and avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol.
Workers on certain medications, those who are in poor physical condition, or those with certain illnesses such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease are at increased risk of cold-weather injuries. All workers should be teamed into pairs to more easily and quickly recognize warning signs.